Pedro the Lion is loud in the speakers, and the city waits just outside our open windows. She sits and sings, legs crossed in the passenger seat, her pretty voice hiding in the volume . . .
It started with a short story about a 19-year-old addict struggling to stay alive, written by a surfer who, along with his ragtag group of friends, wanted to find some way to help her. The story — Renee’s story — was just 1,372 words about cigarettes and Jesus, razor blades and stars and songs that mean so much. Its title? To Write Love on Her Arms.
The story led to a T-shirt to help pay for her rehab. The T-shirt gave birth to a movement. From the movement many more stories have been born.
Sometimes stories change the world.
I met with Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, to talk about depression, the church’s need for honesty, and his new book, If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For.
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Tell me how TWLOHA began.
I met Renee and she was denied entry into a treatment center in downtown Orlando and ended up spending five days living at the house I shared with David McKenna. She was struggling with depression, addiction, and self-injury. We later learned that she had attempted suicide before.
After she went into treatment, I sat down and wrote a couple of pages that was meant to sum up our time together and talk about what she had lived through, to share the pain she had known and the hope that things could change. I had no plans for it to be anything but a story, except that we realized she was stepping into treatment and there would be bills.
I had the idea to print and sell some T-shirts as a way to help — 2006 was the moment of MySpace, so I made a page and posted the story. Everything changed when John Foreman from Switchfoot wore the first shirt at a show in South Florida. From there, the story and the shirts took on a life of their own.
We started hearing from people outside Florida and then from Australia and England. So many people began to ask questions, share their story, find out how they could help a friend that was struggling. It was all a great surprise. And that’s what eventually gave birth to TWLOHA.
What was going on when you were writing that first story?
It’s funny . . . I don’t have a lot of memories of the process. I remember turning everything else off because it felt important. Some friends teased me that I was MIA a couple of days. Even if it was just for me, I felt it was something I had to do.
I’d never had conversations like the ones I had with Renee. I didn’t want to forget, and I didn’t want to go back to normal. And I had the hope that other people could be touched and encouraged by this story. I don’t typically use spiritual language concerning the writing process but that was definitely one where I felt like a messenger.
Like most, I saw TWLOHA at Hot Topic first. How did they get involved?
Hot Topic started carrying our shirts in 2009, which was three years after TWLOHA began. They were one of our biggest sources of financial support for several years and helped introduce TWLOHA to thousands of young people.
Certainly there was the element of irony that a hopeful message would emerge as the #1 shirt in a store not necessarily known for hope. I love that we’ve had a place in that scene for years now. I’m a big fan of contrast, so I smile at the thought of hope showing up in surprising places.
What is TWLOHA up to these days?
At the end of the day, the primary thing we’ve always been about is communication. We communicate a message of hope and help online, on college campuses, and in the realm of music. And there are more ways than ever to get involved, from university chapters to street team to the conferences and the 5K we host, to joining our team as an intern in Florida.
We raise money through donations, grants, and speaking honorariums, but T-shirt sales are still the primary source of support, which is certainly unique for a non-profit. I love that we’ve been able to make that work for the last nine years.
Why didn’t you go with a religious publisher for your book?
I didn’t want my book to be classified as Christian, just like we never wanted TWLOHA to be classified that way. My sense with that label is that it makes Christians high-five and feel some little sense of victory, but it has a way of alienating people outside of that.
I’m not a literary expert, but I remember daydreaming of how cool it would be to end up in the Penguin family. They were the first group to respond, they made an offer an hour later, and we went with them. I had to ask if they were okay with what some might call “Christian language” in my writing — as well as some profanity. I loved their response, which was, “Just be yourself. We want you to be you.”
The book starts with an email to your mom and contains random thoughts, tributes to fallen friends, airport crushes. Tell me about the unusual layout.
I kicked ideas around with my agent, who’s a good friend, and we talked about maybe organizing things by themes. But I really saw it as a collection of short pieces I wanted to exist in one place. Doing it chronologically felt really simple and kept us from throwing any gimmicks at it, if that makes sense. It wasn’t meant to be clever or strategic, just a way to put all of these stories from this 10-year journey in one place.
I hope the book is like a tattoo. They say you get one and that leads to getting more. I certainly love writing and believe that words are powerful. It feels like something I’m supposed to do.
I get a sense the title If You Feel Too Much isn’t just aimed towards others. You seem like a pretty sensitive person.
Yeah, I certainly can relate. Sometimes in a painful way and sometimes in an excited way — like having a crush on a girl. It’s just how I’m wired. I’m grateful that I get to do this work and relate to people out of my own struggle with depression. It doesn’t fix my stuff or make it go away.
You hear the word “purpose” thrown around a lot, and I don’t give it a lot of thought, but I heard Don Miller say that sometimes we need a purpose to distract us, to keep us from getting lost in ourselves. For me, even if it’s going to speak at a college, at least it pulls me out of my own struggles and the things I may be obsessing over and wish were different. It forces me to interact with others, and, as distractions go, I think there’s something really healthy about that.
How do we mix the spiritual with the practical when it comes to treating depression and addiction?
I believe God gives us wisdom. Counseling and medication helped me. And so has learning to be honest with the people in my life. I don’t think it’s a this-or-that conversation. Some Christians feel like they’re supposed to simply pray or read the Bible and wait on God to heal them.
It’s great to do those things, but let’s not ignore the practical tools that exist. God gives us other people in this life. We need the wisdom and perspective of other people. And I believe it’s okay to take medicine, too.
You’ve been out there in the trenches a long time. What do we need to know to help better?
I see evidence of a lot of things improving. There are a lot of people that are part of the church who really do care and want to participate in this conversation and be part of the solution. But to answer your question, the first thing that comes to mind is honesty. Vulnerability and honesty — from leadership, from the stage, from a sermon.
We see so many horror stories of a person who seems to be one thing in the public eye and then it comes out that the whole picture of their life is something quite different. And it ends up hurting a lot of people. I get excited about environments where people can be real and admit their struggles and admit they don’t have it all together.
A lot of times Christians love to be known for their answers — for telling people how to think or vote or what to make of certain issues. But we’re not as good at meeting people in their questions. And maybe those questions don’t have answers, or maybe the answer takes years or decades to work out.
What does it look like to just sit with someone who recently lost a spouse or child to suicide or addiction? To not throw scriptures at it or try to pray it away, but just be willing to sit with someone in their pain? My hope for the church is that we can come to believe that we don’t have to fake it. That we can be honest and invite others to be honest with us. I really do believe honesty has a way of becoming contagious.
Before we let you go — whatever happened to Renee Yohe?
Renee is doing well. We’ve done four events together in the last month or so. There have been relapses over the years, and her sobriety is something she has to choose and work out one day at a time. But she’s living in Nashville and is excited about her music, singing in a project called Bearcat and also making jewelry. We have some of her rings on our site and they keep selling out, which is really cool.
Our friendship was challenging for a lot of years. We certainly navigated a unique road as far as how we met and what became of it. As you can imagine, we had to wrestle through some really unusual questions: Who owns the story? What do you do when millions of dollars worth of T-shirts are being sold and someone wants to make a movie?
I think we would both say we’ve done a lot of growing up. A lot of healing. So Renee and I are friends today. And there’s a lot of peace in that.
Image courtesy of Jessy Rone.